Skip to content →

Tag: sacralism

Calvin’s Geneva

Calvin makes some curious comments on 1 Corinthians 5:10 that show how different his view of the church was from ours. I mention it here because it has significant ramifications for political philosophy. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 says “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” Chrysostom gives the obvious explanation “[W]e must live among thorns so long as we sojourn on earth. This only do I [Paul] require, that you do not keep company with fornicators, who wish to be regarded as brethren.” But this requires a necessary distinction between the church and the rest of society. What if there is no distinction? What if an entire society is in the church? Calvin objects

Against this exposition a question might be proposed by way of objection: “As Paul said this at a time when Christians were as yet mingled with heathens, and dispersed among them, what ought to be done now, when all have given themselves to Christ in name? For even in the present day we must go out of the world, if we would avoid the society of the wicked; and there are none that are strangers, when all take upon themselves Christ’s name, and are consecrated to him by baptism… I prefer one [interpretation] that is different from all these, taking the word rendered to go out as meaning to be separated, and the term world as meaning the pollutions of the world  [Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs to be separated from the pollutions of the world.]… There is, then, a sort of intentional omission, when he says that he makes no mention of those that are without, inasmuch as the Corinthians ought to be already separated from them.

Thus Paul is saying (apparently) “of course you should avoid the sexually immoral in the church, because you should avoid all sexually immoral people everywhere.” Not quite.

In a very interesting essay titled European Calvinism: Church Discipline, Jordan Ballor and Bradford Littlejohn note

For all his emphasis on discipline, the ministerial office, and the distinctive institutional form of the church, Calvin never seems to have entertained the Anabaptist separation of church from commonwealth, viewing the whole populace of Geneva as part of the visible church, and never questioning the important role of Christian magistrates in defending and edifying this church… Prepared at the invitation of the Geneva city Councils, this text [Ordonnances ecclésiastiques] provided the blueprint for Calvin’s famous and remarkably successful disciplinary system, of which the chief distinctive was the Consistory. This body, consisting both of elders (twelve laymen chosen from among city Councils) and ministers, was responsible for hearing cases related to various forms of immorality and disorderly conduct, as well as superstition, doctrinal error, contempt of ministers, and more.

In Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up, Litteljohn elaborates, noting that a common narrative about Calvin doesn’t seem to match the reality.

First, let’s ask what we should expect to find in Geneva on the conventional narrative:

We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution.  This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor.  Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members.  Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters.  Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme.  And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith.  Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join).  Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.

Unfortunately, almost no piece of this picture corresponds to the reality.  What do we find instead?

Instead we find, in 1541, the city authorities of Geneva dismayed at the breakdown of morals and social order, and the chaotic administration of ecclesiastical matters.  Seeing the need for a revamped civic order, and recognizing that this could not be achieved without a well-ordered spiritual government, they invited Calvin back to draft the ordinances for them, recognizing his unique combination of theological, legal, and administrative expertise.  Calvin accordingly drafted proposals for the moral government and spiritual provision for the city of Geneva, as a cooperative enterprise between the clergy, the ordinary laity, and the magistrates.  This was solicited, proposed, and enacted as a piece of civil legislation, which the civil authorities in Geneva were ultimately responsible for putting into practice and maintaining.  While it is often assumed that at this early date, there were in fact sharp and irreconcilable differences between Calvin’s vision (an autonomous church) and the magistrates’ vision (a state church), this is considerably overstated.

Gillian Lewis, in her article, “Calvinism in Geneva in the Time of Calvin and Beza (1541-1605),” helps set the record straight.  First, she points out,

there was between Calvin and the Genevan authorities a good deal of common ground, about the functions of a clergy, about the suppression of religious dissent, and about the policing of public morals.  The broad measure of this consensus deserves more emphasis than it is usually afforded in accounts of the Geneva of Calvin: any amount of ingenuity and zeal on the Reformer’s part would, without it, have been fruitless.  It turned out that the Ordinances, in their assumptions and in the details of their provisions, secured from ruling councils and general public not only widespread acquiescence, but genuine support.

There was, for example, agreement about the duties allocated to each category of the new-fangled ministers of the Word, deacons, doctors, elders, and pastors.[7]

Let’s look at these offices, since these are the building blocks of Presbyterian ecclesiology.  Although one can read countless accounts by modern Reformed authors attacking government-run welfare on the basis that in the Calvinist tradition, welfare is handled by the church as a distinct institution, managed by deacons, and not by state functionaries, and although many of these accounts will even claim that this is how it was in Geneva,[8] this rests on a fundamentally anachronistic dichotomy.  In fact, as Lewis explains,

Deacons proved uncontroversial.  It is doubtful, in any case, whether they can reasonably be regarded as a “Calvinist” innovation, in principle or in fact.  Procureurs to oversee the finances and hospitaliers to take care of the day-to-day care of the sick and impotent poor had been established in 1535, when the city had amalgamated a crowd of ecclesiastical charities and private funds into the centrally-funded Hopital-General, established in a recently emptied convent.  All that the 1541 article did was to confer upon those officials the Scriptural cognomen “Deacon”, and the dignity of being regarded as part of the fourfold ministry.  From the outset, however, they were in no real sense ministers, but lay office-holders elected by the civil power.  Nor was there anything novel or unconventional in their duties to support the view that we have here an example of a new and specifically “Calvinist” attitude toward the poor.[9]
Deacons, in short, far from being an independently-elected office of an independent “church” were essentially civil functionaries serving the church in the united Christian community.

What about elders?  Surely these are the bedrock of Calvinism’s autonomous spiritual government?  Well, not really.  Again, Lewis:

Elders had to be “decent and respectable men, beyond reproach and of unblemished reputation, above all God-fearing and carrying spiritual weight.”  They were chosen from members of the city’s ruling councils.  They usually found themselves carrying the burden of the office for years on end.  This must surely have contributed to the development of a consistent style and tone in the Genevan church, and to some extent in Genevan public life.  As the Ordinances had intended, their co-operation with the pastors did produce some genuine dovetailing of the activities of the spiritual and the civil power.[10]

Indeed, most of the moral issues that the consistory oversaw were a matter of enforcing civil legislation that had been passed before the Reformation even came to Geneva:

Like that of other cities, the commune of Geneva—long before the Reformation—had regularly passed edicts against fraud in commerce, against usury, against excessive luxury in dress, against sexual offenses and prostitution, and against drunkenness and disorderly behavior in the street.  There was a spate of such legislation between 1536 and 1541, when the newly sovereign republic was asserting its authority in every sphere.  The edicts passed in Calvin’s day, indeed in the whole period from 1541 to the early 1570s, were a continuation of this process, and formed part of a wide program me of clarifying and tidying up some of the anomalies, gaps, and obscurities in the city’s rudimentary legal code.  The ordinances concerning public morals reveal the lineaments of what was, in the eyes of the magistrates, acceptable social behavior.  They were designed not so much to transform the community so that it became more godly as to protect traditional decencies and preserve the status quo. The Consistory contributed to this end. . . . Ready acceptance of most of the Consistory’s rulings by the community in general suggests that there was a high degree of overlap between the morality the pastors extracted from the Scriptures, and the everyday assumptions about decency and the proprieties and justice which prevailed. The Consistory was a part of this continuum of edification.[11]

Not, that is, that the Consistory exercised coercive jurisdiction in enforcing these laws.  Rather, it served as a sort of halfway house, filling the gap between preaching that demanded standards of righteousness, and civil courts that punished unrighteousness.  It was, as Lewis puts it, “a tribunal of first resort, sifting out those cases which should properly be passed on to the civil courts,” involved “in infra-judicial settlement of pastoral matters which had got out of hand.”[12] (Given the sheer scope of moral legislation that Geneva had enacted, which would otherwise have remained largely unenforceable, a body like consistory was almost demanded.[13])

This certainly helps provide a clearer picture of Calvin’s view of the civil magistrate and how all of society related to the church. This concept is the root of the idea among Protestants that the duty of the civil government is to make people more moral – to behave outwardly like Christians (see Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation and Left Behind in America: Following Christ after Culture Wars). Thankfully most modern reformed churches have abandoned this model of the church in favor of congregationalism (yes, modern Presbyterianism is largely congregational). But regretfully, many of them still retain vestiges of it in their political philosophy.

See also Calvin’s Two-Fold Government.

Leave a Comment

Mohler’s Sacralist Commentaries

The Pilgrim Path/Proto-Protestantism is an interesting blog with a lot of thought provoking content. The author was reformed, embraced a lot of Kline, now remains a paedobaptist but has an Anabaptist view of government (so far as I can discern). His posts are worth perusing because he’s well read and really helps the reader see through the fog of the sacralist hangover that America and many reformed Christians still have. It’s a main focus of his blog. (That said, he rejects systematic theology in favor of biblicism and as a result has concerns about the implications of sola fide. I haven’t had time to fully read what those concerns are, but reader beware). He defines sacralism as:

The confluence of church and state wherein one is called up to change the other. The theological impulse to create a holy society. This is a broader concept which can be applied to non-Christian societies as well. Sacralists will argue that historically all societies have been sacralist. While those opposed to it will agree, but insist it is a pagan notion of society, the foundation of the Tower of Babel system which rears its head all through history.

Israel was not a Sacral state, but a Theocracy. On the surface they may seem the same, but a Theocracy is directly chartered and ruled by God Himself. Israel was one, and The Kingdom of God is another, but the Kingdom of God is identified as a Kingdom invisible to the unregenerate man. At present, apart from the Church, there are no Theocracies on earth.

All other attempts at ‘theocracy’ are in fact pseudo-theocracies or Sacralist states. In the Christian version, an attempt is made to create a visible cultural and political establishment of the Kingdom, but this is a perversion of the true Kingdom of God, and theologically and historically very dangerous.

Anyways, here are some good quotes from Mohler’s Sacralist Commentaries, responding to Mohler’s lament over England’s decision to designate old church buildings as non-religious secular buildings for use by the community.

Mohler is a thoroughgoing sacralist. While he proclaims to be committed to Biblical Christianity, he actually has more in common with Medieval Catholicism...

Mohler assumes these buildings [old churches in England] were valid expressions of Christian faith and celebrates the sacral symbolism of the steeple, the Tower of Babel-like proclamation that every society makes in its architecture. He doesn’t view it that way of course but celebrates the symbolism of Christendom. Like most sacralists he simply assumes the validity of calling buildings ‘churches’ and then without hesitation accepts all the subsequent theology generated by this basic doctrinal error…On the one hand I lament the decay of these buildings and their history. On the other hand when I view it from a theologically objective viewpoint, as opposed to Mohler’s reactionary romanticism, I say ‘tear them down’. Remove the false witness so that the antithesis between the world and Biblical Christianity can be made more manifest…

As far as weddings go, Mohler once again displays his theological ignorance and shallowness as well as his sacralist assumptions. The whole idea of a ‘church wedding’ is also a holdover from medievalism and is thoroughly sacralist in orientation.

Waldensians and others were viewed as fornicators and their children as bastards because they refused to be wed in Roman Catholic buildings by the extra-scriptural sacramental arrangement created by Rome…

They were wed privately and among themselves, but this was not recognized by the sacral society in which they lived. Despite the erroneous claims of some, the Waldensians were almost exclusively paedobaptist but they like the later Anabaptists had a problem with baptism being tied to the sacral society. They had a problem with Christian identity being confused and conflated with citizenship, the very thing Mohler celebrates and even demands. But as a Baptist his theology on this point is rather muddled and exposes the shortcomings of his own system rather than provide any clarity for his audience. At the core of sacralist thought is the idea that at least outwardly society represents a monistic structure, everyone is (in some sense) a participant in the civil-religious fusion. Pluralism, the teaching and demand of the New Testament is the great enemy. The composite society in which we live as strangers, pilgrims, exiles and aliens is the status sacralism seeks to eliminate. Interestingly when doing so, many of the ethical foundations of New Testament are eliminated.

Sacralism’s consequence is a new foundation for ethics and a host of newly formed necessary consequences and imperatives result. It can look like Christianity but results in something very different. Mohler’s ethics applied to the world all too often bear this out. The values of the world and the Kingdom become muddied and distorted. War, greed and pride are recast. Serving the greater good they can become tools and fruits of virtue…

Once again, even if we assume his position, why should we expect nonbelievers to view the wedding ceremony in the same way Christians should? It is always baffling to me that sacralists seem to find some kind of great satisfaction in forcing infidels to hypocritically ‘go through the motions’ and be forced to participate in some kind of made up social ritual or exercise in civil religion.

Despite Mohler’s claims, it’s not Biblical. There’s nothing in the New Testament that tells us to compel the pagan through the threat of law. There’s nothing that suggests that we take over society and impose Christian (and hence spiritual) realities on people who cannot apprehend let alone comprehend them.

And there’s nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the wedding is some kind of quasi-worship service. The modern ‘Church Wedding’ is the child of medieval Roman sacralism, a philosophical consequent of sacral theology. It is not derived from New Testament exegesis and its retention by Protestants claiming Sola Scriptura is in fact a denial of the principle. Mohler undercuts his own ability to argue against other Catholic innovations. By embracing the building and the wedding ceremony he’s already admitted the Scripture alone is not his source of doctrinal and ecclesiological authority…

The confusion grows because to many the marriage is legitimated by the state issued license. This has led not a few to balk at the state sanction and for some to reject it altogether. If, the certificate was specifically ‘sacral’ as it was in the Middle Ages or more recently in Rick Santorum’s dream state of Spain under Franco, then we too would have to reject the certificate, and be married ‘underground’ as it were. Again, this is what many a Biblically minded non-conformist opted for during the totalitarian regimes of Roman and in some cases Protestant Christendom.

But contrary to Mohler we can be thankful that we live in a secular society. Marriage in terms of the civil order has no religious meaning. Therefore I can go and get the certificate… it wouldn’t matter if it was done on the exact same day as the wedding vows and consecration…. for simple legal purposes. The state issued certificate has nothing to do with sanctioning the marriage in terms of Christian doctrine or ethics. It’s simply a legal formality and social convenience. It’s not a holy stamp of approval from a sacral society nor does Babylon’s necessarily wrong interpretation of marriage have any bearing on my understanding as a Christian.

We register with Rome/Babylon because it makes life easier in terms of taxes, medical decisions, inheritance and so forth. If Rome gets out of the ‘marriage’ business altogether and allows us to legally establish our tax, medical and inheritance connections through other means and under a different nomenclature, then so be it. It might even aid in lessening the confusion.

To suggest that marriage will be understood in Christian terms by unbelievers is to reject the testimony of the Holy Spirit. It is to assume the unregenerate can take hold of the holy and understand Union with Christ. This is folly as is the whole of Mohler’s thought and commentary.

There is much to criticise about modern wedding culture and its obscenities. Failing to get married in a ‘Church Building’ is insignificant. Actually it is Mohler’s position that is far more disturbing and exposes the distorted thinking at work in the Sacralist worldview and its theological and social hermeneutics.

 

2 Comments